Suspect a Broken Toe? How to Tell – And What Not To Do

Why and when it's important to seek medical evaluation
Suspect a Broken Toe? How to Tell – And What Not To Do

Maybe it happened while stumbling around your house barefoot in the dark. Maybe it was while running barefoot up a flight of stairs. But we’ve all done it: stubbed a toe hard. In those first few moments of blinding pain, you might wonder if you’ve broken your toe.

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For most of us, thankfully, the pain subsides and things get back to normal fairly quickly. But if pain persists and you suspect a broken toe, resist the temptation to tape up your toe, take a bunch of pain relievers and ignore it. There’s good reason to see a physician immediately if you suspect a broken toe, says sports and medical orthopaedist Dominic King, DO.

“Any time you think you may have broken a toe, even though it may seem like a very simple problem, you should be evaluated by a medical professional,” Dr. King says.

Why? Your toe bone may have been pulled out of proper alignment or pushed into an incorrect angle, and if so, it’s important to get this corrected, Dr. King says. Even if it’s a simple fracture, your toe could heal improperly, which can cause problems down the road, such as arthritis.

Help your toe heal right

Your doctor will likely use an X-ray to determine if your toe is broken and what treatment is needed.

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If the break is a simple fracture, in which the parts of your bone are still lined up properly, your doctor will probably put you in a walking boot for about three weeks, Dr. King says. The walking boot keeps your toes immobile so the bones can knit back together in alignment.

If your toe bone is at an incorrect angle, your doctor may numb the toe and then straighten it immediately. Afterward, you may be required to wear a walking boot.

If you have significant displacement or your toe is dislocated, you might need surgery to realign the bone.

Should I just tape it?

Taping a suspected broken toe can help alleviate pain if the break is simple and the bones are aligned. However, this won’t help the break to heal correctly, so it’s important to see a doctor, Dr. King says. If you had a bad break, taping your toes could actually make things worse, he says.

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One way to know whether your toe is broken is if you can put weight on the foot. If you can walk on it without pain or limping, it probably is not broken. If so, try icing the injury and taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, Dr. King says. However, if severe pain or swelling persists, see a doctor.

Also, observe your injured toe carefully, Dr. King says. If it has a deep cut or wound, your bone might be exposed to air and so should be evaluated by a physician. Other clues to a broken toe include swelling, discoloration and bruising.

If your toe is at a different angle than the toe on the other side — and it wasn’t before your injury — seek medical help right away, Dr. King says.

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